A statue of a boxer by Nashville artist William Edmondson has drawn a record-setting price at auction — $785,000, the highest price ever garnered for what's called "outsider art."
Edmondson did briefly achieve insider status during his lifetime: In 1937, he became the first African-American to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
But his background prevented his art from being accepted as mainstream. Edmondson was self-taught; he spent years as a railroad worker and hospital janitor before discovering his talent for carving limestone at age 57, according to Cheekwood.
“While the New York art world had this interest in him, it didn’t change his art," said Cara Zimmerman, specialist of folk and outsider art at the auction house Christie's. "He continued to work in his own environment, with his own tools, in his own realm."
His 17-inch tall limestone sculpture of a boxer — thought to be modeled after Jack Johnson or Joe Louis — was, by many accounts, one of Edmondson’s favorites. He reportedly sold it reluctantly to a private collector in 1949, and it was presumed lost until a couple of years ago, when the collector passed away and her estate lent the piece to Cheekwood.
When Christie’s auctioned it off on Friday, it sold for five times what the auction house was expecting — a high affirmation of Edmondson's work, Zimmerman said.
"When you have artists who are able to get these numbers, then that means that the whole art world starts to pay attention to them in an entirely different way," she said. “As much as we like to think that people look at art divorced from the market and divorced from the numbers, that just isn’t true. It all works together."
A Tangled Path To Success
After losing his janitor work at the hospital, Edmondson found odd jobs, including at a business that made tombstones. He believed he'd found a calling in chipping away stones, saying his hands were guided by God for some higher purpose.
During the height of the Depression, Edmondson turned the driveway of his Edgehill home into a makeshift stoneyard, using repurposed railroad spikes to chisel minimalist figures. Most of his sculptures depicted animals or religious figures. Occasionally, he carved famous people he admired or enjoyed.
Edmondson was self-taught and inspired primarily by his experiences in Nashville and at the Primitive Baptist Church. Still, his rough-hewn stonework was similar to pieces at the time by art school-trained sculptors. The style he liked to call "stingy" also mirrored an overall move towards abstraction among artists of his generation.
His work was received with mixed enthusiasm. On the one hand, he caught the attention of a handful of well-connected Nashville art lovers who quickly spread the word, leading to his solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The New Deal program that supported artists, the Works Progress Administration, put him on the payroll for several years.
However, an article on Edmondson for Harper's Bazaar was never published, reportedly due to the artist's race. His champions found more roadblocks in their efforts to place his work locally: Edmondson only got his first solo exhibit at a Nashville gallery four years after his MoMA show.
Resurrecting His Work
After his death in 1951, much of the art world seemed to move on from Edmondson's work. Locally, his sculptures were exhibited at Peabody College, Fisk University, Nashville's Lyzon Gallery and the Tennessee State Museum. Cheekwood built a substantial collection of his work, displaying it often.
A touring show mounted by Cheekwood in 2000 is likely one of the major reasons the art world has rediscovered Edmondson. His work is increasingly found in major collections and museums.
Christie's had anticipated that "The Boxer" would sell for $150,000 to $250,000 (the highest price ever paid for an Edmondson previous to this sale was $285,000).
"When you have a masterpiece, it's very hard to know just how high it will go," Zimmerman said. "This piece is exceptional, and for people to be acknowledging that in the price they're willing to pay is really, really phenomenal."